When I was in college, I took a class called Medieval Mysticism. I had high expectations for that class. I wanted something much more than an academic experience. I wanted something much more than a grade on my transcript. Yes! I wanted to hear the voice of God in my ears. I wanted to see a vision. I wanted to feel the presence of God in a way that would change my life forever.
I went to the University Bookstore. I bought the complete works of St. Francis. I bought the complete works of St. Clare, Julian of Norwich, Bonaventure, Hildegard of Bingen. I bought them all. And then, eager for revelation, I went to class.
Sadly, the class was a dreadful bore. Out of the entire term, I only remember one thing.
One day, several weeks into the class, a man came into the classroom from out on the street. He looked like the sort of man who would eat locusts and honeycomb out in the desert. His hair was wild. His clothes were out of style and ragged, as if appearance had no meaning to him. He came in, and he sat right next to me.
“What is this class?” he asked me.
“It's on mysticism,” I whispered back.
He nodded. And then he asked, “What is the difference between mysticism and magic?”
Now, I could have just shrugged my shoulders. I could have pulled the syllabus out of my notebook and slid it across the table towards him. I could've said, “Shh! I'm trying to listen.” But the question struck me as important: “What is the difference between mysticism and magic?”
I thought about it for a second, and then I said, “Mysticism is about surrender. Magic is about getting what you want.” This satisfied him, I think. After sitting there for a few more minutes, he stood up and left.
This stranger appeared out of nowhere. By asking the right question, he helped me find an insight that has served me well for many years. Instead of trying to generate a Mountaintop Spiritual Experience (by reading medieval manuscripts or talking to wild-eyed strangers), I am learning to surrender. ~~~
This story was first published in Chapter Four of Minding the Light at www.mindingthelight.org.
Mike Huber is the pastor of West Hills Friends in SW Portland. He is connected to the larger Quaker universe through his work with Quaker Voluntary Service and Friends Committee for National Legislation. Mike and his wife Erica have two children in college.